A, B, C, D: The Paradox I Live

I don’t believe in grades. That’s a blanket statement, and I do mean it. And yes, I did just submit names of students who will not graduate based on not passing my class, and I will be grading papers tomorrow to determine who gets an A, who gets a B and who gets to sit in my class again.

I don’t believe grades say anything significant or valid about a student’s accomplishment–except, of course, how well the student “plays school.” Kids who do all their work will get higher grades than ones who miss assignments. That’s simple math. And if a teacher factors in “participation points,” offers extra credit, or includes some other wild card, grades reward those who “play school” well even better. A student who has turned in but failed every assignment can, with those types of wild cards, pass a class. A student who gets all A’s and B’s on major projects or tests, but doesn’t do the daily stuff….it’s anyone’s guess how the grade will be tallied, and depends more on the teacher’s system than the student’s knowledge and skills.

It is possible that other content areas are easier to quantify; English is more subjective than most English teachers will admit. But consider this: there is no correlation in my school between the ACT, the Ohio Graduation Test, or the Watson-Glaser critical thinking test we’ve been giving and a student’s grade point average. While I understand the correlation wouldn’t be exact because of the purpose and formats of those tests, no correlation? That suggests something is flawed somewhere. As low as our average ACT score is (and it’s below the national average by enough to matter), over 25% of our students are on the Honor Roll.

Furthermore….even if I come up with a system of grading that gives good feedback on what a student has mastered, and what the student needs to work on–which would be a very valid type of assessment, I think–there’s another issue looming under us: what is the yardstick I’m using to measure with? Should students be assessed relatively, either against their own progress or against their peers in the class? Or is there an absolute standard that we should have as our guide?

For anyone who doesn’t deal with grading (lucky people), that’s the core issue behind “grade inflation.” Teachers don’t walk in, see poor, minority students and think, “wow, I’m going to right generations of oppression and societal marginalization by giving these students better grades than they deserve.” We grade paper after paper, and see which ones are better, which are weak, and before too long, our sense of “good” is skewed. Especially because most of us haven’t seen a wide cross-section of papers to gauge from before we get a pile of our own and a nifty red pen.

Until I went to an AP workshop with teachers from affluent districts–places where a noticeable percentage go to Ivy League colleges and most state schools are a last resort–and we spent a large amount of our time working with the very specific requirements of an AP essay, I had no clue what people in other types of schools thought an A or B paper was. My A papers would have barely gotten C’s from those schools. And I can list plenty of reasons my students shouldn’t be graded like that….which means I’m using relative grading, and there is not an absolute. Also, the underlying assumption there is that my students can’t compete with affluent kids–welcome to the perpetration of the underclass.

I watched a few episodes of “Dancing With the Stars” this season, and it was a petri dish of assessment. At the beginning, the stars get comments based on relative standards–Kate Gosselin and Nicey Nash (the non-dancer and the one with “jiggly parts”) heard about how they improved and what they needed to work on; but quickly, the star with potential–this season, Evan the Figure Skater and Nicole somebody–they got comments based on professional, experienced dancers, comments designed to push them. The judges were often boo’d by the audience, whose reaction was based on their emotional reaction instead of absolute standards. The scores, though–everyone got graded on the absolute standards. Kate Gosselin’s scores tanked; hard as she tried, she’s not a dancer, at least at this level. Even with the “curve’–the audience call in votes–the judges retain the power at the end. Their grades matter; their understanding of the absolute standard of assessment matters.

So… as I finish grading this week, I know I’m playing a game—but teachers become teachers because we “play school” well. The system needs overhauled, I know. Next time I’m ready to tilt at windmills, that’s on my list.

Pretzel Logic: Why Do I Write?

Why do I write? Or, more precisely, why do I careen my thoughts across cyberspace (albeit, irregularly)? I’ve been pondering that lately, although I should admit that mulling over meaningless quasi-philosophic questions is one of my most effective ways to procrastinate from grading. A while back, I decided my blogging and other forms of inflicting my ramblings on people was a sign that I needed some perspective…and maybe a life…and maybe a hobby that didn’t involve assuming people wanted to know my every thought.

Is blogging sheer narcissism? Am I vain enough to believe that I may say something profound, something so compelling that people should hang my words on their refrigerator? Do I think I’m as amusing as Jon Stewart, and every bon mot should be recorded in hopes that he stumbles upon me and whisks me away to be a staff writer ? (Well,….um….yeah) Or that I have the capacity and wit to create an image or phrase worthy of repeating? On the rare occasions that has happened, it’s a real ego stroke, I’ll admit. But still–that’s too rare to be a major motivation. I think. I hope. Wow….it would be as pathetic as Oliver Twist if that’s my major motivation.

Which is why I kept thinking about the topic. Then it hit me that those questions all presumed someone read my brain-droppings. When I wrote for the Lima News regularly, I knew that I had an audience. I was stopped at the grocery by people who liked my latest column–or by people who vehemently disagreed! I got the occasional note from someone who enjoyed a specific column, and I often had interesting discussions with people who wanted to share their ideas and reactions. I liked that. Ok, I’ll concede that at least a part of my reaction may have been from the ego lift of people seeking me out to respond, but I thrive on interesting conversation. That really was fun. I miss those conversations with strangers and near-strangers, in fact. But when I write here? I think I’m my main reader, too–this site is not exactly tearing up the bandwidth. Which makes me question why I do it, which leads back to the idea that, yep, it’s narcissistic.

Then a couple days ago, I read an article from a columnist for a news magazine (not sure if it was Time or Newsweek; I read both). He was talking about technology and social networking (another topic I’m thinking about frequently), and commented that although public writing is a narcissistic act in some ways, in another sense it is an attempt to build community in a society that has lost most traditional vestiges of community; that the modern equivalent to Solomon’s Portico and Emerson’s Lyceums is found online, and that participating by reading, writing and/or commenting was the same as discussing at the town meeting or other more traditional venue.

That logic works for me. Instead of being a sad, self-absorbed wanna-be writer, I’m participating in the intellectual life of the community, perhaps even creating a tribe of thinkers, swatting at the issues and dilemmas that pester modern people. So I’m deliberately planning to write at least once a week here, treating it as much like a commitment as I did my newspaper column. That’s my plan. Check back on my progress (note, I’m assuming audience again. Hi Mom!Hi Dad!)